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Fire Up the Grill

The grilling season is upon us, and we’ll be flabbergasted, yet again, as we witness some blockhead attempt, with the usual undeserved confidence and bravado, to get the grill started. Within seconds I can usually tell if a major flop is in store. Are these guys not reading all the grill books published every year? I suppose not, and neither are their wives and girlfriends because I can’t tell you how often I’m asked to get the grill going. Granted, I’ve been grilling for 40 years and wrote the very first book exclusively about grilling Italian-style called “Grill Italian” (take that, Mario Batali), but I’m still astonished that it all gets repeated year after year.

We’ve got to get some things straight: This and the next two parts will be devoted to grilling. And everything you read here is applicable to all cooking styles.

Your grill is obviously the most important piece of equipment for grilling. Over the years, I’ve had all kinds of grills — from an outdoor brick fireplace grill pit for natural hardwood fires to a Weber charcoal kettle grill with cover to a Ducane 2002S gas grill with rotisserie attachment to $15 tiny grills bought at a drugstore. I once tested the same recipe on that $15 baby and a friend’s $4,000 Viking outdoor grill and it came out the same (somewhat depressing for my friend).

Let me say now, though, that grilling is different than barbecuing. Barbecuing requires fires providing long, slow, low, indirect heat and usually involves rubs, marinades or sauce brushing. Grilling is strictly about cooking over fire.

I’ll presume you already have a grill, but if not I will not make brand recommendations, but simply give some guidance in choosing. Here’s the only advice I’d like you to reflect upon: Man has been grilling since time immemorial, and man never worried about his grill until 1955. There are a lot of grill possibilities such as in-ground stone-lined pit barbecues, braziers, hibachis, in-door fireplace grills (Tuscan grills), uncovered grill carts, wagon grills, spit-roasting grills and some others. When shopping for a grill, look for heavy, solid construction such as a burner box made of heavy-duty cast aluminum. For gas grills, avoid paying a lot of money for useless bells and whistles such as windows, timers, fuel gauges (just keep a spare tank handy) and temperature gauges. These days I grill exclusively with hardwood charcoal and therefore I like kettle-type grills like the one Weber makes, or any Weber grill for that matter. I also like grill wagons (a cart with four wheels and grilling grates on top with no covers). Although I prefer charcoal over gas, let me say something about both.

Gas grilling

For years I derided the gas grill. It was a bit snobbish of me. I argued that you couldn’t possibly make real grilled food with a gas grill, that only a charcoal fire gave you that real grilled taste. Then I rented a house on Cape Cod one summer and it was equipped with a gas grill, which I lamented upon seeing. Two weeks later, after grilling with ease and to my heart’s content, I became a convert and will extol the not-inconsiderable virtues of a gas grill: They’re easy to fire up, you barely have to clean them, they only take 15 minutes to preheat — versus 30 minutes to get a fire going — and there are no ashes to remove.

But with grilling, food is the key thing. The reason food tastes good when grilled is not because of your fuel source but because fat drips down on hot coals or lava rocks and returns in the form of smoke to flavor the food. If there is a drawback to gas grills, it is that they can’t get as hot as a charcoal or wood fire. Gas grillers complain that charcoal grills require lighter fuel that gives the food a gasoline taste. But this isn’t true unless you put food on before the fuel has burned off, or if you are not using fuel at all and are using a fire chimney instead.

For safety reasons, read all the manufacturer’s instructions before using gas grills. Remember that you are using fire, so use common sense too. Remember both gas and charcoal grills produce carbon monoxide, so always grill outdoors, and not in an enclosed area, not even the garage with the door open. Keep the grill more than a foot away from combustible materials. Store your spare LP gas (propane) tank away from the grill outdoors. Manufacturer’s instructions and propane gas dealers can instruct you on the proper way to attach the tank to the grill gas hose. All propane-gas grill regulators must meet U.S. Department of Transportation regulations and will be equipped with a quick connective plug allowing you to make fast and totally safe hookups between your grill and propane tank. Gas only flows when the plug is properly connected by being fully engaged into the coupling. When you are finished grilling, remember to turn off the grill control knobs first, then the valve of the propane tank.

Charcoal grilling

When you’re working with a charcoal grill, you’ll want a grill that has a cover. This is because you can control your fire better, you can grill a greater variety of foods, and you can grill differently flavored foods. For example, you can grill smokier food or a more aromatic food. Food grills quicker with a cover down and tastes more flavorful because the smoke is swirling around underneath. The most common charcoal grill is a covered kettle grill of the type Weber makes. The cover and the firebox both have adjustable vent holes to control the heat. Because neither the coals in the firebox nor the grilling grid are movable, (meaning the food is always about five inches away from the heat source), the only way to control heat is by using the vents and cover and building indirect heat fires.

I sometimes see people scrubbing their grilling grates unmercilessly with a wire brush before grilling. I laugh, because it’s totally unnecessary. Grilling grates can be cleaned using the same principal as a self-cleaning oven. One carbonizes food particles through very high temperatures. Once your food comes off the grill, let the fire burn off whatever is on the grate. The next time you use the grill it will again be subjected to high temperatures before grilling as you fire up the grill. Give the grate a quick brushing with a wire brush only to remove the carbon powder or scrape with the edge of a grill spatula. It is important that the grates be clean, but remember that the grates will clean while the grill is cooling down and preheating. The ideal grate is a thick, heavy, cast-iron grate. Unfortunately, this is not used for most commercial gas and charcoal grills that I know of. However, heavy aluminum works fine.

The reason true grillers love hardwood charcoal is because it burns hotter and can be extinguished quicker than briquettes, leaving you a nice chunk of charcoal for your next grill. Years ago, hardwood charcoal was hard to find; nowadays not so much. Charcoal briquettes are popular because they are sold everywhere and can be poured from the bag. Gas is popular because it’s easy to use, but you then need to pay attention to spare tanks and propane refilling.

The big debate about fuel for grill fires is between gas, lump hardwood charcoal and charcoal briquettes. In my mind, the debate is spurious for several reasons. The key to good grilled food will always remain with the expertise and imagination of the cook, the love they have for shopping for, preparing and cooking good food, and the quality of the ingredients they use. There are differences, of course, between gas and charcoal, and someone will prefer one over the other, but in the end, the equipment and fuel is not as important as the food being grilled with the love of the cook.

Top photo: New York strip steak on the grill. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Zester Daily contributor Clifford A. Wright won the James Beard/KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year Award and the James Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food in 2000 for "A Mediterranean Feast." His latest book is "One-Pot Wonders" (Wiley).